Interview: Actor Chris Klein, director Matthew Ryan Hoge

"The United States of Leland" leaves the viewer with so many questions and allows for multiple interpretations. To address the controversy of the film, which took 28 days to shoot, writer-director Matthew Ryan Hoge and actor Chris Klein made an appearance at the Ritz Carlton in Washington for an inside look at a very complex movie.

It's a sunny Monday afternoon and both gentlemen appear relaxed, yet eager to share their creation. For two years, Hoge worked for the Los Angeles juvenile hall system, interacting with young kids who committed horrific crimes. It was here that Hoge began to understand the innocence of the young criminals, as he peered into their realities and discovered that many of them were normal adolescents. The most powerful message that Hoge left with is that "anyone is capable of anything."

Hoge disagreed that the film condoned violence.

"What I wanted to do [with the film] was address violence with an honest eye at youth crime and not deal with it in a way it's dealt with in the papers. The way Columbine happened where they get an easy answer for it - turn the kids who commit the crime into monsters," Hoge said. I think that's such a simplistic way of looking at it."

Both Hoge and Klein described some of the pressures they think teens deal with today, based on their experiences.

"I think, in my life and in my experience, teens have stress, and everybody's stress is unique, and everybody's frame of reference is different," Klein said. "Like Matthew says, it's not that the people who commit those acts are monsters - there is pressure on them beyond their control. One thing this movie does an amazing job investigating is what happens when those pressures become prevalent and how it absolutely is possible for human beings - in this movie, young people - to deal with those pressures."

"Everything is sort of overwhelming," Hoge added. "When things don't go right, I just don't think you've lived long enough to know that you can handle the stress. When you're young, you're more susceptible."

Hoge also discussed the importance of connecting with people. The director considers that troubled young people in America handle their frustration in a different way that stems from their inability to connect. Hoge offered coping and prevention strategies for families.

"We need to remind people to pay more attention to their lives and the people around them, and I think that's really key," Hoge said.

Many young actors stay in the same genre for a long time before they break out. Klein represents one of the few young actors to accept a variety of projects throughout his career. Already, Klein has appeared opposite Mel Gibson in "We Were Soldiers" and starred in "Here On Earth" and "American Pie," after breaking into Hollywood opposite Reese Witherspoon in "Election."

"You always have to challenge yourself," Klein said. "This was a chance you rarely get as an actor, when someone gives you that opportunity. I try to do things that challenge me as a human being and as an intellectual."

As Allen Harris in "The United States of Leland," Klein is coping with the loss of his mother and he becomes sensitive on many layers. Like the title character Leland, Allen must find a way to manage his problems.

"What are human beings capable of dealing with?" Klein asked, when talking about the characters. "Dealing with any stress, any pressure, how far can a human being go? A seemingly selfless, good-natured, young teenage white suburban male, what is he capable of when faced with such adversity and such loss? That's what we're investigating."

Perhaps "The United States of Leland" is just that- a story with missing pieces and no straightforward answer.

"If I could say what I wanted to say in two sentences, I wouldn't have made the film," Hoge said.

Hoge stated that the subject matter was difficult and that he wanted the audience to think during the movie, to figure out how all the characters are related.

"I think the worst thing you can do is underestimate the audience," Hoge said.

Stressing the way an audience can be engaged in a film if they are given the opportunity to think, Hoge explained where the title came from.

"In the beginning of the film, Leland's point of view is shifting, ideologically," Hoge said. "There are two things that you need to know in the world. You need to know when to have compassion and when to reach out to other people. You also have to know when to put a wall up, see pain and say, 'I'm not going to let it touch me,' and most people have the ability to unite those. To me, the tragedy of Leland as a character is that he has those abilities, but he lacks the ability to unite them."

Klein closed the discussion with an appropriate anecdote and an optimistic outlook:

"I take a page out of [the book of Alexander Payne, the writer/director of 'Election'], which says, 'Who am I to decide what anybody takes away from any story?' Everybody has their own frame of reference, everybody's going to take away something different and everyone's take is right. After being presented with this material and thinking about things of this nature, there are huge, huge, vast amounts of hope and, like Matthew says, let's all pay attention to that. Especially with our young people"

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